You might be an archivist if…

While scouring the Internet for an answer to my burning question:

Why do some people pronounce it ar-CHI-vist, and others AR-chi-vist? (I still don’t know. If you’re a phonologist and you’re reading this, send help!)

I came across a blog post from 2010 entitled, “The Increasingly Common Use of ‘archive’ as a Verb.” In the post, the author, Kate Theimer, expresses her shock at the use of ‘archive’ in sentences such as, “I am going to archive this document tomorrow.” Theimer suggests that using ‘archive’ as a verb isn’t something archivists themselves are likely to do, and signifies that the speaker doesn’t understand what archivists do.

There is a shocking lack of archive gifs on the Internet, so I chose a dust gif as a not-so-subtle nod to Carolyn Steedman.

Admittedly, I do not use ‘archiving’ as a verb, though I use it as a gerund pretty often. (Example: Archiving is a complex process.) I suspect what Theimer considers a ‘lay’ usage is meant to express something like, “placing items in long-term storage for retrieval later.” “Archive” becomes a term for a safe place to store things from the past or present which we see as important for the future. This understanding of archiving focuses on product rather than process.

For archivists, things are murkier. Archiving might include accessioning, appraising, deaccessioning, describing, re-describing, cataloguing, foldering, or curating. Much like cooking, archiving from the archivist’s perspective is a complex process which involves many steps – some which overlap, some which bleed into other processes. Cooking leads to eating, archiving leads to researching. Is cleaning part of cooking? It is hard to know where the stream of processes becomes something else entirely.

But you don’t have to do things the way a chef does things for your actions to count as ‘cooking,’ even though chefs are generally recognized as authorities on cooking. Theimer’s blog sets up a dichotomous world in which there are archivists – who do not use archive as a verb – and non-archivists who do. But do non-archivists exist?

A few years ago, I joked with a photographer friend (who has worked in photography for many years) that nowadays, “Everyone is a photographer.” Surprisingly, they replied that they believe everyone is a photographer, that the ubiquity of digital photography and the bloom of self-declared photographers isn’t of detriment to anyone and need not be condemned. This friend continued, “Just like everyone is an archivist.” In essence: there’s enough room in the world for all of us to take photographs, to store things for future knowledge (to archive), and to identify ourselves through those actions.

I’ve been looking for an opportunity to use this gif.

In contrast to professional territoriality, it is refreshing to think of ourselves as individuals who are practiced at a style of archiving and who have learned from past mistakes and successes, but who do not own the archive or its processes. That which compels us to place things in ‘an archive,’ if we believe Jacques Derrida, is deep rooted and not unique to archivists.

On one hand, I sympathize with Theimer that those who do not work within institutional archives tend to overlook the labor involved in creating and maintaining the institution. This is a claim made by Michelle Caswell and others. For Theimer, ‘archive’ as a verb signals a de-professionalization or an oversimplification. But by thinking of other collections as kinds of archives, as siblings rather than neighbors, I am not convinced we in the institutional archives will lose out. Instead, I think it will push us to expand our theory and practice beyond the legacy of Jenkinson and Schellenberg, to ask about other conglomerations of things: fossils in the ground, tools in a toolbox, a teen’s digital photos stored on the iCloud. We might also ask why, after a good century or so of professional archiving, our methods remain so opaque to others. Through this, archival theory and practice can emerge as useful ways of looking at and engaging with meaningful groupings meant to endure through time.

In a lecture at Concordia University, Dr. KimTall Bear offers that, “I cannot have faith in scarcity. I have tried. It cut me from the circle.” Though Dr. TallBear’s concern is the politics of sex and not the archive, I think the quote still offers a powerful challenge to archivists: How can we archive without scarcity? How can we open up our terms, titles, and rules to allow everyone to be an archivist?


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